In Film and Union's Ads, Dueling Views of Teachers

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Teachers' unions have come under fire from politicians like Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Mitt Romney in recent months. But rarely has opposition to teachers' unions worn a face as sympathetic as that of Maggie Gyllenhaal, the Academy Award-nominated actress who plays a crusading parent confronting a bullying, bureaucratic union in a new movie, "Won't Back Down."

The film was released on Friday amid a flurry of criticism from teachers' unions anticipating a wave of negative publicity, and a chorus of praise from anti-union campaigners recognizing an opportunity. The same day, the union of New York City teachers, the United Federation of Teachers, announced a million-dollar campaign of advertising on NY1, WABC, WNBC and other local channels, starting immediately.

Was the timing more than coincidence?

Michael Mulgrew, president of the federation, said the union had been planning the "back to school" advertising campaign since the spring. "I didn't react to 'Waiting for Superman,' " he said, referring to the 2010 documentary that assigned teachers' unions some blame for the country's educational failings. "I'm not going to react to the movie."

"The movie," he added, "is what it is -- it's a work of fiction."

But Mr. Mulgrew took a dig at the new film, saying no nonfictional attempt by parents to take over a school had worked. Of two efforts to use the California "parent trigger" law, which allows parents to take over collapsing schools, one failed and another, in Adelanto, near San Bernardino, was recently approved by a state court but blocked by the local school board.

In the film, Ms. Gyllenhaal plays a single mother who teams with a disillusioned teacher, played by Viola Davis, to rescue a mismanaged public school in Pittsburgh. Union representatives (Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg) try to thwart them.

"The film is a work of fiction," Mr. Mulgrew repeated. "It's like the Titanic didn't sink."

His union's advertising campaign consists of a 30-second commercial that is scheduled to run on local stations during several high-profile network broadcasts and popular shows, including the presidential debate on Wednesday, "Good Morning America," "Saturday Night Live" and Yankees games. It is also available on YouTube.

In the advertisement, a montage of typical school scenes gives way to teachers speaking about their efforts to help students learn.

"We're ready to continue working with parents and the community," says Lesley-Anne Jones, a fifth-grade teacher in East New York.

The American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of the New York union, has also started a public-relations offensive. Although it has not bought advertising time, its president, Randi Weingarten, issued a 2,025-word statement attacking the new movie as "a false and misleading depiction of teachers and unions." She also appeared Friday morning on CNN to criticize parent trigger laws, which are on the books in seven states, and she noted on Twitter that many reviewers had panned the film.

Ms. Weingarten also jabbed at Michelle A. Rhee, the founder of StudentsFirst, an advocacy group that is frequently at odds with unions, when a StudentsFirst staff member posted a glowing review of the film on the review site Rotten Tomatoes.

Ms. Rhee, a former Washington schools chancellor, was an early supporter of the film, hosting advance screenings at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and attending the film's New York premiere. StudentsFirst has also created a Web site to educate parents about parent trigger laws.

Nancy Zuckerbrod, a StudentsFirst spokeswoman, said in a statement, "Our nearly 2 million members are supporting this film, because it's helping to raise awareness about a critical issue in America today -- the frustration of parents whose children are stuck in failing schools."

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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